We could all use a little adventure after what’s been stressful few months. Get the heart pumping, the palms sweaty, the wondering creeping in—can we do this? Here’s one of our favorite trip reports which reminds just how wild, in a million different ways, each backcountry trip can get. – Ed.
“Is this an epic?” I asked my partner.
“It’s not an epic until you’re spooning your buddy,” he said.
Then it was an epic.
As epics go, it was a baby epic befitting my toddler-climber status, and a scenic one. Summer solstice, full moon, side of Cathedral Peak.
Epics, I wondered, as soon as I heard the word, how did they happen? Then, as we were benighted, I understood. You were just a little too psyched, you started a little too late, you knew each other a little too little, and then-confusion, darkness, spooning.
Dan and I had climbed together in Yosemite Valley for a few days. He had gear and a positive attitude. A budding leader with a booty rack, I was still dependent on the kindness of strangers to get on routes beyond the top-ropes at Swan Slabs. And I was so eager to get on things, any things, that I would climb with anyone who didn’t seem certifiably insane, and wasn’t named Spewer. (“Don’t climb with a guy named Spewer,” was the main piece of advice my trusted mentor had given me when he left me in the Valley, alone and even greener, the summer before.)
So when the Valley got hot and crowded and Dan volunteered to lead all five pitches of the regular route of Eichorn’s Pinnacle in Tuolumne, I heartily agreed. I had led a few easy pitches in the Valley, but was still too slow and ruminative about my gear to lead confidently on a multi-pitch.
We got an early, but not alpine, start. By the time we got to the base of the route, there was plenty of sports action already underway.
The woman currently leading pitch one was making a comeback from a broken ankle, belayed by her encouraging boyfriend. A petite, impatient girl soon arrived, flaked her rope onto my feet, threaded her ATC, and began a spirited argument with her buddy about all the other routes they could and should have climbed today. A fourth party appeared, in the midst of a similar argument, but in a foreign language I guessed to be Slavic.
The woman leading pitch one got the Elvis leg. The boyfriend reminded her of an impressive list of climbs she had completed before the ankle incident. The European argument reached a crescendo, and that leader began climbing, off-route, to the right. The impatient girl berated her buddy for not having the vision to do this himself. Finally, the comeback kid gained the belay, to much fanfare from the boyfriend. The Euro, meanwhile, now 30 feet up and out of options, cursed colorfully.
Finally, Dan set off on lead. It occurred to me, fleetingly, that it was no longer morning, or possibly even midday.
By the time the tugs came, the slack went, and I started up, the Euros had bailed and the impatient party was already shadowing me, so close that the leader was practically narrating the holds in my ear, or, more accurately, into a different, lower orifice. Mercifully, the 10b direct variation diverges from the 5.9 regular at the top of the first pitch. Finally in solitude and silence, I cleaned the pitches and fed out the rope as the shadows lengthened.
By the end of the third pitch, Dan was yelping, “Make haste! Make haste!” whenever I came into view. By the fourth pitch, the sky and the rock were pink. “Make haste!” Dan tugged, “make haste!”
Finally, Dan whooped from the summit.
“Make haste!” he shouted. As I followed the final pitch, darkness fell, and the moon rose over the summit. When I topped out, the sky was navy blue.
We rappelled down to a notch and began the descent vaguely described as “third-class ledges.” It was only then revealed that neither of us had even been up Cathedral Peak, which shared the same descent trail, or had any sense of the way down.
There were a few cairns here and there. Then there weren’t. There was an obvious trail. Then there wasn’t. We got cliffed out, doubled back, tried higher, got cliffed out again. I read the SuperTopo directions for the descent out loud.
“That means nothing to me,” said Dan.
Suddenly, it was 12:30 a.m. We had been wandering ledges for close to three hours. I was learning that moonlight did weird things to your depth perception and that my headlamp dimmed significantly when used continuously for multiple hours.
A voice in my head spoke clearly. It was my grandmother’s voice, or maybe it was my own, from the future. It was the voice of the Jewish grandmother I myself might become, but only if I didn’t anticlimactically tumble a few dozen feet to my maiming or death after surviving a 700-foot technical climb. The voice said, in the way only a Jewish grandmother can, “Now, this would be a good way to get hurt.”
Sunrise was five hours away, first light maybe four. I patted my pockets, felt the ever-present Bic. We had the means to make a fire. I had to pee. We had the means to put the fire out-or so went my brilliant, and our only, plan.
Spooning, it turned out, was no warmer than curling singly around the fire, taking turns feeding it. Parts of me were cold, and parts of me were warm. I was never really asleep or wholly awake.
I wanted off this mountain like I’d never wanted anything. Actually, that was not true. I wanted off this mountain with equal fervor to how much I’d wanted on it about 12 hours before.
I’d never been able to scrape together the money to go on an Outward Bound or NOLS trip, but now I didn’t have to. You could pay people to take you out in the wilderness and leave you there all alone, or you could just be a dumbass and do it yourself for free.
Shivering, hungry, thirsty, and stuck, I spent the night trying to assimilate what it was I was in the process of learning. It boiled down to one simple intention: next time I went up, I would make it my business to know more about how to get down.
Then the light started changing, a band of pink on the horizon, a glimmer on the lake below. We put out the fire, and started down.
Dawn broke and the moon set. As we loped along, the world took on shape and depth again, and the path appeared, as if by magic. The fear and frustration of the cold night and the lost trail burned off with the rising sun, seeming first distant, and then illusory, then absurd. The place we’d been was one of many high lonesome places in this big wide world, and if we’d gotten ourselves up there, then surely, with just a little more light, we could get ourselves back down.
Photo: Tom Hilton
For a terrific look at the golden age of climbing in the 1960s, check out, well, Yosemite in the Sixties.